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An Interview with Helen Thomas

chicago dyke's picture

[Welcome, Crooks and Liars readers!]
[And dKos readers too!!]

Sometimes it's hard not to quail before your betters, and I just had that experience, in the best of ways. Helen Thomas agreed to speak with me about the war, the Bush administration, and life in the Beltway, and I am honored and flattered as a Little Blogger to have had this opportunity.

Helen's impressive bio can be found here. She's got long experience with Republican administrations, and earned her credentials as a feminist icon as the only woman member of the press corps to travel with Nixon to China. She written several books, which you can learn more about here.
Because this was a phone interview, this post will be a little shorter and different than my Q&A with another member of the White House press corps, Olivier Knox of the AFP.

I started out by thanking her for her bravery and willingness to ask the tough questions that few others are wont to do these days. I told her that she is well loved in the blogosphere, but I could tell that Ms. Thomas isn't the kind of person who enjoys a lot of flattery. She also didn't want to talk about herself, saying that enough has been written about her already. This strikes a sharp contrast with other members of the mainstream media, who seem to me to love being the center of attention, and always more interested in their own perspectives than the issues of the day (I'm looking at you, Bowtie).

We moved on to the topic of blogs.

Ms. Thomas "reads some" but isn't "totally addicted," and demonstrates that she understands what a time sink blogging can be for some of us. She says she's not really a computer person, but if she were, she'd probably read more blogs more frequently. In this she demonstrates that she is truly Old School, and I suspect that she is a believer in getting out there and pounding the pavement. Again, there's a strong contrast between someone like her and newer members of the media, who can't be bothered to google the topic they write upon, let alone get out there and do hard, old-fashioned investigative journalism. I'll add that Mr. Knox had something to say about that, pressures from bean counters to make news cheaper and more profitable, which make that kind of journalism less likely.

Ms. Thomas has words of caution for the blogosphere. Anyone with a laptop "isn't a journalist." She believes that journalists have ethical and professional standards that help them prevent mistakes that bloggers are at greater risk of making. Fact checking is another area in which Ms. Thomas believes bloggers are at risk.

Asked about the critiques of the press common in the progressive blogosphere, Ms. Thomas replied "that's a mouthful," because I tossed in stenography for Republicans, the incestuous relations between press and politicians, lack of investigative zeal in the press, and the failure to always print facts or admit to and correct mistakes. But she didn't exactly defend the press. They "let the country down" in the run up to the war, and "played ball" with the administration, and took "whole hog" the justifications for the invasion. This was a major "disservice to the country" in her eyes. But she's more positive about them now, saying that "Katrina turned them around" to the problems of the administration, and noting that the press now knows it's time to do "real reporting." She called it a "grand awakening."

Asked about her famous quote that Bush is the "worst president in history," she reminded me that she said so in 2002. She says that while he could have improved, he didn't and hasn't yet, and I don't think she's holding her breath waiting for that to change. Clearly the issue that makes Ms. Thomas the most emotional and forceful in her assertion about the failures of this administration is the war. She called it "unconscionable" and a "quagmire." She seemed particularly irked that the rationale for the war keeps changing, and that to this day it's hard to get a consistent answer from members of the administration, "you ask five people and you get five different reasons," she notes with no small feeling.
I can understand why this would be such an infuriating reality for someone who has such impeccable credentials as a journalist and who knows how to talk to politicians; it's beyond insulting.

Ms. Thomas doesn't think there is any good reason for the war. "People are killing, and dying, for what?" Asked why she thinks the American people have accepted this war for so long, she said that 9/11, and the fear and uncertainty it engendered, kept people behind the war effort far longer than would've been possible otherwise. "Fear is a powerful weapon," she relates, and she notes how strong the urge is to support the president after an attack. She said that such fear caused people to accept not only the war, but also government intrusions on privacy, and the shifting rationale for the war.

But Ms. Thomas believes that people "woke up last November," and are now asking questions that they would or could not previously. Ms. Thomas very much wants straight answers from Bush. "We had a choke hold on Saddam," and some of the most strict and painful sanctions on a third world nation ever, to the point of causing "children to die." Ms. Thomas really is not satisfied that the war, on top of that ugly history, is excusable. "There was never any threat from a third world country to the most powerful military on earth," she says.

Asked about the differences between this administration and previous ones when it comes to press relations, Ms. Thomas nails it: "secrecy." "Every president wants secrecy," she relates. But this administration wants untold amounts, something Ms. Thomas doesn't believe they need, or that the press should let them have. But the Bush administration's unwillingness to be open makes it "more difficult" on reporters today. Ms. Thomas also says that the press needs whistleblowers and insiders to come forward with information, something that isn't as common to this administration. Little wonder Bush values loyalty in his employees above all else. Ms. Thomas laments that there are "unknown motives" at play in the White House, and more damning is her estimation of why they are so secret: because their hidden motivations for policy would be "unacceptable" if made clear to the public.

Asked about the probability of a Constitutional crisis brought on by the reality of a new Democratic majority, Ms. Thomas isn't bubbling about the Democrats. They are "too chicken" to really "go to the mat on the issues" and too "concerned with the elections (of 2008)," nor are they willing to "stick their necks out" to do what is right. Worst of all, they "don't feel that strongly" about the immorality of the war and other conditions created by the administration. Keeping their positions is the true motivation for most Democrats, and little else.

Ms. Thomas won't make a prediction about which Democrats or Republicans have the best chance at the nomination. She did say how much she liked Edwards, and his focus on issues like health care and poverty. She was impressed he admitted he was wrong on his war vote. She really wants the next President to "pull this country out of its moral slump."

Ms. Thomas had two words to answer my question, 'what is the biggest problem facing good government today?' "Lousy leadership." The follow up question about what is different today compared to when she first entered the business was hardly more reassuring. Back then, and unlike today, people understood the true meaning of public service, and followed in the tradition of Lincoln. People in previous governments have wanted to "make a contribution" and help "the sick, the poor, those without shelter" and had concern for issues like fairness and health care. She stressed that this isn't found in the Beltway today, and she blames much of our current situation on Reagan, "when all this began."

Cub that I am, I couldn't help ask this giant for a little advice. I wanted to know how citizen journalists and bloggers could gain more access to the politicians and newsmakers we write about on the blogosphere. She said, "Keep plugging away. You have more access than you think," and implied we're more powerful than is generally admitted. She also encouraged us to "spread the word" about the blogosphere, which I take to mean to our friends and neighbors who still rely on the mainstream press.

She loves Colbert and agreed to do the little video for the press correspondent's dinner because he is funny. I think she understood the cover she was giving him, and perhaps he needed it, to be willing to risk so much with his routine.

Ms. Thomas strikes me as a person who is impatient with a lot of the dissembling and excuse-making in our political society today, and I can understand why. She's really unhappy with the war, its lack of a meaningful raison d'etre, and the senseless bloodshed and violence in Iraq. She obviously is tired of cowboy imperialism, and mentioned several times that the US has no right to pick on small and powerless nations in a poorly covered attempt to control their resources.

It's kind of odd, as a filthy mouthed rabid lamb of the blogosphere, to hear someone like Ms. Thomas unfiltered. Indeed, I'm a little ashamed. Let's face it, we bloggers have a lot of fun with our anger, making naughty jokes and using silly or sloppy language, mainly because we can get away with it. To hear her, I was reminded of the elegance of righteous anger, which clearly she has. At the same time, I am not sorry that we are of dissimilar generations- it must be painful for her to see the decline in standards in almost every arena. I can say that as a young person and adult, I've had no direct experience with what has been lost- I don't doubt Ms. Thomas is at times wistful for the days when government did good. I imagine she harbors great disappointment in the younger generation of the press as well.

Ms. Thomas had some sharp warnings for us, from the benefit of her direct experience in similar history. "We left Vietnam by our fingertips, people on rooftops," and reminded us of other ugly images of the last days of that 'police action.' Further, "100,000 private contractors is no way to go," and while she isn't prone to using the CT/foily language, it's clear what she meant by that. "Everyone" (American) needs to leave Iraq "right now" because the war is little better than a "crass approach to controlling oil" that denies Iraqis their rights as human beings "to live."

She signed off with "let's give peace a chance" and charmingly laughed about stealing that line from the Beatles. It's a simple wisdom that suits her well.

NOTE: Ms. Thomas will most likely not come by to answer questions, as she's a busy person not often sitting around loafing off in front of her computer. She may drop by, but don't expect too much. If something particularly pressing comes up in the comments, I'll pass them on but without the guarantee that she'll get back to us. She shames us younger folk with her energy and professionalism, eh?

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trifecta's picture
Submitted by trifecta on

You are turning into the go to blogger for media interviews lately :)

Bravo! And bless you for sharing Helen Thomas with us all today. Been doing the Snoopy dance ever since learning Imus is toast but your interview with Helen is even more cause for happiness.

Thanks for all you do! I hope to be back in my long time home in your town for YK2 this summer. With luck you'll be there too and I will have an opportunity to thank you in person for your immeasurable contributions to our beleagured nation and how much you inspire this ole newspaper brat. My late dad, a real newspaperman, would have loved ya too!

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Well written, good format--hard to do with an interview without turning it into unimaginative Q&A or even a plain transcript. You intersperse your thoughts as well as the questions with her answers/comments nicely.

Good damn questions too.

Ms. Thomas, if you drop by, thank you for your kindness is granting this interview to our humble blog, and for your work and wit(s) over the decades. Glad you liked the roses last year. :)

scarshapedstar's picture
Submitted by scarshapedstar on

Nicely done!

But I still believe
And I will rise up with fists!!

nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez's picture
Submitted by nezua limón xol... on

Quite the catch, CD!

It is a new time. Righteous anger clearly didn't work. Perhaps a deeper, less careful anger is required. I don't claim to know. But I do know that whatever the last generation or two did wasn't quite enough. Thing have only deteriorated. Perhaps anger won't work at all.

I greatly admire Helen Thomas.

.delusions of un mundo mejor.

Jakebnto's picture
Submitted by Jakebnto on

I'm not saying another thing, because it'll all just go to her head.

Ok, thanks, CD.

I don't think that is TOO ego inflating.



Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Thanks for the perspective. This is my first visit to your page, but it won't be my last. Consider yourself bookmarked!

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

speaking with ms. thomas really put me in my place, as a blogger and politics-obsessed person. i know *nothing* and i've seen and thought on *nothing* by comparison to her example and life.

there is so much we have to do, as writers and thinkers and policy people. helen has been in the trenches since before i was born. what have i done to compare? no, flattery for this means little to me, i'm still reeling from the idea that when she is gone will be up to us. talk about sobering.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Nice job, cd. If you talk to Helen Thomas again, tell her thank you for fighting the good fight.

And some, like you, earn every good thing by their hard work.

The real gem in the Helen Thomas interview is the point that this generation has lost the sense of public service. One sees it everywhere, in academia, in business, and in government.

Leadership means laying down a marker on a matter of principle and defending it no matter how unpopular it is. FDR, George Wallace, and Lyndon Johnson were each in their own ways, SOBs. FDR and LBJ were wrong on some issues, Wallace on most. But they knew what they stood for and they paid a price for it. I can't imagine a national leader of today suffering the physical pain that FDR did just to make other people feel at ease about his disability. I can't imagine a national leader of today climbing down from a bad mistake and apologizing as contritely as did George Wallace. I can't imagine a national leader knowingly sacrificing the hold of his party on power for a generation for the sake of doing something morally right, as Lyndon Johnson did on the issue of civil rights.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

That was awesome! Helen Thomas (and Sy Hersh) are the last true journalists; Everybody else is an entertainer. Great Job CD!

Ruth's picture
Submitted by Ruth on one that I particularly value. It's a great interview, and Helen Thomas shows why she's reached such eminence. The lost idealism that has made it possible for such cretinous thugs to dominate our country is something the blogs have taken on, and ideally are wiping off the body politic.


Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

The body of her work will stand time's threshold. In this same way Kurt Vonnegut's will remain sharply resolute.

You made as good an interview form her as I've seen, Helen's restraint and candor are measured and balanced.

So ironic a turn of events these key days. Her strong interview, Kurt's sudden loss, the Imus trespass of civility.

A multifaceted stone, whose strengths outweigh its glaring present flaw. There is continuing trend of plurality in blogs that will be its greatest strength. We'll apply the perspective tools to any media item and highlight its brilliance or address its imperfections. The work in progress continues...

This approach to what matters in media diversifies the blend. Heat and pressure Pasteurize the product. By degrees each blog can add body and richness to Liberty's fluid brand.

Thus bitter and sweet brews emerge and are shared and sampled. Thomas' perceived bitterness is like hops, true connoisseurs prize such ingredients.

There's a place for everything in the discussion, the ingredients our emotions comprise can be partaken of to varying degrees. As sections of TPM Café and aggregate sites show, there's a place for everyone in the process.

This site boasts sterling repertoire in its own right.

Thanks for the interview ChiDy, and thanks again Helen, for the Candor. Toast to those before us(Kurt) those now(Helen), and those of both today tomorrow(Chi,Helen, others here). There is a unified awareness being made, each batch of news and reflections on it arrive to wards that day.

Xenophon's picture
Submitted by Xenophon on

CD. I'm Sooooooo. Proud of you. I remeber when we were sitting in your studio, surrounded by cats and wine bottles and you put me on to the whole blogging thing. Man look at you now. Don't you dare pull up.

Mad love,



Yo I'm in airports, shooting between customs and ticket counters. Americ really sucks in terms of internet connection.

You've done an admirable job with Ms. Thomas.
She's a little lady, but casts a long, long shadow.
I've loved Helen from the time of JFK (who used to
kibitz with her) to Shrub (who fears her and wishes
her gone). I have read her books, and consider her
a patriot of the first kind. I am sure Thomas
Jefferson would admire her as much, too.

But there's another reason for my comment.
The reason is in this quoted stanza:

Ev'rybody's talking about Ministers,
Sinisters, Banisters and canisters
Bishops and Fishops and Rabbis and Pop eyes,
And bye bye, bye byes.

All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance" -John Lennon;o)

Yours truly,

An old fart, Beatles fan, liberal, Cubbies die hard.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

A true journalist in an age when jornalism is dying is Helen Thomas

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

We love you dearly, and thanks for giving Nicole Belle a chance to meet and interview you.

In terms of the internet, we're still in the stone roller period of it's potential, still small communities, but with nationhood in mind.

And may our best wishes find you!

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

after her appearance with Colbert. It occurred to me that Colbert was getting most of the praise, laughs, and thanks, although Helen showed some pretty big balls herself. She wrote back to say "Thanks" and we carried on a limited e-mail conversation for a couple of days. She is a real gem.

I found your post via C&L. I report for a small newspaper near DC, and just last evening, I was wondering if I could get an interview with Helen... Good job, CD!

MJS's picture
Submitted by MJS on

A blogger who writes like a journalist--a good journalist--what a treat! Thanks, CD!


Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

I would have appreciated a much higher ratio of
direct quotes from Helen Thomas to gloss from
chicago dyke. This piece teaches us more about
chicago dyke than it does about Helen Thomas.

From her White House work, I know that Helen Thomas
is articulate and frames her thoughts in lucid and
complete paragraphs. You'd never guess that from cd's
reporting, nor do we get even the faintest flavor
of Thomas's voice.

Ruth's picture
Submitted by Ruth on

... but it would seem that Helen Thomas' reference that 'fact checking' might be a 'risk' for bloggers would certainly apply to his post. [The desirability of reading before posting might also apply, but that would be 'gloss'.]
I see that Sideshow has up the interview now.


Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

A shift is underway in America. I love Helen! What she says about fear and using it to control the resources of a 3rd world country gets to the heart of it all.

I came by way of "First Draft." Thank you.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Perhaps I _am_ confused.

We are talking about the text at the top of this page, right?
The text in which we get to the sixth paragraph before we get one complete sentence quoted from Thomas? The text in which almost all the direct quotes are sentence fragments, many of them not even clauses, just two or three word snippets?
Or is there another interview somewhere, and this is just the summary?

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

If this interview is an indication of what to expect from your blog, I'll be a regular visitor. I'm more interested in measured, responsible writing instead of finger-pointing and name-calling. Thank you and Please continue in this vein.

Ruth's picture
Submitted by Ruth on

And if it had been a press conference given for the purpose of issuing propaganda, that probably would have occurred for a simple reporter. This was an interview, for a particular blog by an editorial writer with her own personality.

What ChiDyke gave was an interchange and the character of that interchange, for a readership that has expectations of real information about what occurred. Had Helen Thomas been the sort of didactic character who wanted to make a big impression, that would have been conveyed by lots of long and wordy sentences and an inability to deal with another personality. This was not that sort of experience, and that is conveyed. We like Helen Thomas for the real person she is, and are really glad she isn't the kind of role player that you evidently expected.

I know some one who refers to himself as a "personality" who would probably have given the sort of performance you would prefer. ChiDyke would make mincemeat ... no, giblets out of him.


chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

but it was a short interview! i could've just produced my notes and given you verbatem what she said, but i thought it would be more interesting to write something like i used to read back when we had real journalists writing in our major paper. everything in quotes are her actual words, and i promise you i am too much in awe and have too much respect for her to change the flavor or tenor of what she said. really, very little of this is my own thinking, and i think i make it pretty clear when it is my opinion.

but the short version is that the conversation just wasn't that long.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

um, by now you've probably reviewed my other work here at corrente and noticed the um, lack of civility i'm more usually prone to.

but you are right in one thing- interviewing helen has made me redouble my efforts to be more constructive and productive in my blogging. but i can't promise you i won't still have a potty mouth, nor that i will stop pointing directly at criminality and demanding prosecution when i see it. which as long as bush is in charge, will be a lot.

Submitted by lambert on

Let me try:


(Hover over the little (?) icon for a glossary entry. Our language, fair and foul, generally has a carefully consideredd raison d'etre ...)

No authoritarians were tortured in the writing of this post.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

This is the reason why Helen Thomas should be considered the Patron Saint of every journalist who refuses to compromise their own ethical training for the easy story.

I once wrote to her thanking her for her stand against the original Spokesliar of this corrupt Administration, and she said she was just doing her job.

Humble and still dogged. Helen Thomas is what every aspiring Journalist on weblogger should aspire to.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

What a good decent human being and professional journalist.

Someone above mentioned two admired journalists. I'd like to add John Pilger.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Nicely done, CD! And congratulations on the privilege of getting the interview and talking with Ms Thomas.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

I assumed Chicago Dyke took notes throughout the interview, rather than recording it. It's hard to interview someone, taking notes as you do, meanwhile getting the interviewee's complete quotes. You capture what you can, but the rest has to be paraphrased. As a reporter, I usually use a tape recorder, but it takes far more time to write the story.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Thanks, cd, for the response; it's probably more civility than a growly old curmudgeon like me deserves.

I know how difficult it can be to get extensive and contiguous and sensible-sounding quotes out of a phone conversation; I had assumed that you had tape-recorded it as a matter of course.

As you grow in your profession, beware of those who offer you only praise and encouragement, and never criticism. It'll be the sadistic son-of-a-bitch of an editor, or even worse, copy-editor, that forces you to really learn your craft. Pride and self-confidence are good, but they are not sufficient -- as witness the current occupant of the White House, who desperately needs someone to take him to the woodshed, and whose friends will do everything in their power to prevent that learning experience from taking place.

I'll be reading your stuff, and rooting for you.
And criticising, if only to myself.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

as for editors: i've already had the harshest. grad school will do that to you, as will writing theses and dissertations. i didn't have a tape recorder, or rather, i had one and it failed to perform in a manner that was helpful. i am too poor to have gone out and bought a new one on the spot, and i type fast enough that i got ~80% of what she said verbatim, if typed in a language only i can read from the notes. anyway, please continue to read, comment, and critique us here at corrente. i speak perhaps only for myself, but that's what i live for. interaction.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i too have skype, and that headphone set. alas, helen, not so much. skype rox! but i can forgive anyone her age for not knowing about it. no, i trust my memory and notes in this interview because i wrote it up immediately after speaking with her.

i took notes in grad school and undergrad for years and years and years. so i know how. joel made his point, and i explained to him why this piece was written as it was. helen herself said to me, "good job. you did me proud." so that's good enough for me.